Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled (Sherman Brothers Awnings), ca. 1985–89, oil on Masonite, 48 × 48".

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled (Sherman Brothers Awnings), ca. 1985–89, oil on Masonite, 48 × 48".

Mary Ann Aitken

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled (Sherman Brothers Awnings), ca. 1985–89, oil on Masonite, 48 × 48".

“Do I want to make a painting of it. Yes because of the yellow. No, because it’s not my idea; it’s familiar to someone else. Oh, keep the yellow. Make another arrangement.”

This quote was taken from one of Mary Ann Aitken’s sketchbooks from the 1980s, a year after the artist’s death. The hue in question dominates the brightly lit facade depicted in Aitkin’s Untitled (Sherman Brothers Awnings) (all works ca. 1985–89), whose rows of muted-red awnings cast dun-brown shadows on the Naples-yellow building. Aitken used colors reminiscent of everyday objects (yellow like a daffodil, like an egg yolk) in ways that rendered her abstracted views of quotidian scenes unfamiliar.

This exhibition featured eleven paintings, all made during Aitken’s time in Detroit (where she lived from 1985 to 1989). In these, the largest works in the artist’s oeuvre (alternately forty-eight- or twenty-four-inch-square Masonite sheets), Aitken offered still lifes and street views, some from near her parents’ home and others looking out the window of her downtown studio. Considered somewhat of an outsider by her Detroit peers affiliated with the second wave of the city’s Cass Corridor arts movement, Aitken was very private about her practice. This body of work acts as a capsule providing evidence of her earlier life as a developing artist, and as an origin story of sorts. And yet, the paintings seem strikingly contemporary in comparison to her later output. This may in part stem from Aitken’s insistent use of the square support, which even in the 1980s was deemed somewhat outré in representational painting (although it had been employed by a wide gamut of abstractionists from Malevich to Ryman). Square was once a derogatory term meaning “old-fashioned.” Now, however, the shape brings to mind Instagram posts—the shape having somehow come to embody the ideal format by which to provide the ephemeral proof of a life.

Aitken always followed the same routine in building up her paintings. She began with flat strokes, adding numerous layers over the course of months and sometimes years. Time and effort are evidenced in her textures: Each piece, physically hardened and cracking from excess paint with visible brushwork, reminds the viewer of the labor of its construction rather than presenting a seamless representation of its subject. Up close, previously applied colors bleed through to the surface in a manner that appears purposeful—nothing looks arbitrary or unconsidered. In Untitled (Night Scene), apparently a view through the bars of a window, white and fiery-orange underpainting fights through the dense black sky. As one looks closer, additional bits of red and yellow merge into an urgent sunset carmine. The painting transfixes in its complexity: Against this obscure sky, the stalk of a potted houseplant on the windowsill looks like a strip of green jewel-tone velvet, and the uneven sheer cream curtains evoke large sheets of linen in motion.

Each painting felt very much an embodiment of Aitken’s Detroit—from Untitled (Red Car), which depicts the front end of a cherry-red muscle car parked in front of a garage, to Untitled (Projector), whose sepia-toned eponymous subject now registers as an embodiment of industrial obsolescence. Again, the surface textures were what made these images distinctively Aitken’s: Globs of green paint hang from the trees in Untitled (Broadway); the surety of her slashed diagonal renderings of a road, sidewalk, streetlamps, and tightly cropped roof (seen from a bird’s-eye view) demonstrates the artist’s facility with her medium. The exhibition suggested that, over time, the paintings had come into themselves. The chipped edges of the original Masonite, which almost suggested that shards of paint had abandoned their supports, suited these quiet works. It was this physical dimension that seemed to give the places and objects in her paintings another existence beyond the past or present. The works’ evidencing of their susceptibility to time—the paint’s splintering and protruding in three-dimensional vulnerability—was also what made them feel alive.

Lisa John Rogers